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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 54, 2006

BRIAN J. INCIGNERI, The Gospel to the Romans: The Setting and Rhetoric of Mark’s Gospel (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2003). Pp xiv+426. $US165.00.

No book puts the case for a post-70 C.E. Roman provenance for the Gospel of Mark so forcefully and eloquently as this monograph by Brian Incigneri. It had its genesis in a dissertation supervised by Dr James McLaren at Australian Catholic University, so we expect and receive a thorough engagement with the wider Greco-Roman literature of the day as well as with the text of the Gospel itself.

The most distinctive chapters (4–7) comprise a close reading of Mark’s narrative as it would (or could) have been heard by the Christians in Rome. Admittedly, many of the arguments are circular in nature but, unless we have some dramatic new archaeological discovery to inform us, that is the nature of all arguments regarding the time and place of the earliest written Gospel. We can really only hope to set out reasonable assumptions based on the little we think we know from other sources, and then test them rigorously against the text itself. Incigneri does this in considerable detail and with great energy and creativity. There has been a tendency among recent commentators to avoid the vexed question of the provenance of the earliest Gospel by dating Mark ‘around 70 C.E.’ (John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark [Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002] 41, 46) and locating it ‘somewhere in the Roman Empire.’ Others read it more generally as a ‘Gospel for all Christians’ (Richard Bauckham, “For Whom Were The Gospels Written?” in Richard Bauckham (ed.), The Gospels For All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998] 9–48), or see it as a written record following numerous oral performances undertaken in various places over many years (Joanna Dewey, “Mark as Interwoven Tapestry: Forecasts and Echoes for a Listening Audience,” CBQ 53 (1991) 221–36). Some have given up on the quest altogether (Dwight N. Peterson, The Origins of Mark: The Markan Community in Current Debate [Leiden: Brill, 2000]).

Frustration at the lack of consensus is understandable, but to read Mark with only a vague and general reference to the politics of the first century is to devalue some of the most urgent exhortations of the text (Mark 13:14) and to head in the direction of a docetic spiritualising and individualising of the Gospel message. Better, I think, to read Mark’s Jesus as passionate about power and politics in the ‘wrong’ context (perhaps Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man [Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994/1988]) than to read him as disinterested in such matters altogether. So whether or not we are convinced by Incigneri’s arguments for locating Mark in Rome, 71 C.E., there are many challenging insights into the meaning of the Gospel and its political implications to be found in his reading.

Chapter 1 outlines and justifies the rhetorical approach that Incigneri adopts. He sees Mark as a ‘pathetic’ Gospel, seeking to engage and meet the emotional needs of Christians who are struggling with recent persecution and with the problems of re-admitting those who denied Christ in the midst of those troubles (which he connects in chapter 7 with the pastoral theme of the ’failed’ disciples in Mark). Chapter 2 seeks to establish the plausibility of a Roman provenance, and the implausibility of other locations, using more traditional arguments.

Chapter 3 argues persuasively for a post-fall (post 70 C.E.) dating of the written Gospel, and this in my view is the most assured and significant conclusion of this book for our interpretation of Mark. Whether or not this Gospel is to be understood in terms of a constructive restoration of the ekklesiai after the calamitous events of 66–70 C.E., or as a triumphant (or nervous?) anticipation of those events (just why then, would the abomination be left standing where it ought not? Mark 13:14) depends on this dating. Incigneri argues convincingly that the Jerusalem Temple has already been destroyed as Mark writes.

Chapters 4 to 7 then seek to show how many details in the text of Mark make sense in the context of the establishment of the Flavian dynasty in Rome, the suffering and fears of the Christians there, and the need for a coded critique of Roman power and a passionate encouragement of ‘failing disciples.’ There are many original insights in these sections, some more plausible and intriguing (‘with the beasts’ in the arena; the torn temple curtain paraded through Rome) than others (the request of James and John alluding to Titus and Domitian?). Indeed, some of the arguments are pushed so far that we begin to wonder if Mark hasn’t created the Gospel story in Rome and for the Romans—so that Incigneri is forced occasionally to remind us that the Gospel events did originate in Galilee after all. Many of Incigneri’s best examples of the relevance of ‘a Roman provenance’ for interpreting Mark could apply equally well in locations elsewhere in the Empire (of the victory parades and persecutions in Antioch, for example), but post-fall Rome is a thesis that needs testing, and Incigneri does it thoroughly!

We have had detailed studies supporting a pre-fall Galilean or Syrian provenance for Mark (Howard Clark Kee, Community of the New Age: Studies in Mark’s Gospel [Macon: Mercer University Press, 1983/1977]; Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man); a pre-fall Roman provenance (Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark [London: SCM Press, 1985]; Donald Senior, “‘With Swords and Clubs … ’: The Setting of Mark’s Community and His Critique of Abusive Power,” BTB 17 (1987) 10–20); and a post-fall Galilean/Syrian provenance (Joel Marcus, “The Jewish War and the Sitz im Leben of Mark,” JBL 111 (1992) 441–62; Hendrika N. Roskam, The Purpose of the Gospel of Mark in Its Historical and Social Context [Leiden: Brill, 2004]), but Incigneri’s work fills a gap not thoroughly explored (to my knowledge) since Fernando Belo (A Materialist Reading of the Gospel of Mark [ET Matthew J. O’Connell, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1981], curiously missing from Incigneri’s bibliography).

For this reason alone, this is an important study and worthy of serious attention. Incigneri’s engaging style (with chapter heading quotations from Josephus through to Oscar Wilde) and thorough attention to a wide range of historical sources make it even more valuable. Questions of method will remain, of course: To what extent can Mark’s story of Jesus in Galilee and Judea be re-read as a ‘pastoral letter’ to Rome? To what extent should narrative and historical-critical methods give way to rhetorical analysis in Gospel studies? Do all hearers of Mark’s story of Jesus have the right to ‘bend it’ to their context to the extent Incigneri has on behalf of the Roman audience, or is it only the earliest hearers who have this privilege? Whatever our answers to these questions might be, Incigneri has given us a challenging and informative contextualisation of Mark’s Gospel.

Review by
Whitley College Parkville VIC 3052, Australia